When the morning of September 11th came, many of us just thought of it as any other day, ready for the usual daily grind. Many of us baseball fans were anxious about the pennant races as the 2001 baseball season wound down to the last few games. But with the falling of the World Trade Center towers, everything stopped, everything became different. All the usual minuscule worries we found to be so paramount suddenly became negligible and unimportant. A sense of universal mourning fell over the United States; a feeling of disillusionment sunk into the hearts of millions. Suddenly, our world was changed forever by those shocking and unnerving events. It was a dreadful jolt to all our systems and it was all so surreal..
Then, baseball returned.
Although the pain in the soul of America did not go away, doubtful if it ever fully would, baseball not only gave us something to watch other than the latest at ground zero. It allowed a country to begin the healing process through America’s game, coming together as a country on the fields of major league baseball. Rivalries and wins-and-losses were not important, they didn’t matter. It did not matter if you were Yankees, Red Sox, Mets or Phillies… we were simply Americans, watching America’s game as one wounded, but proud nation.
Of the Mets currently on the 25-man roster, only three were in the major leagues during the 9/11 attacks. Last week, I got to speak with Willie Harris, one of those three players, in regard to what he remembers about that tragic day, the days following, and the return to baseball a week later.
Harris was a September callup for the Baltimore Orioles in 2001, originally wondering why the game was canceled on such a beautiful day, he quickly realized baseball would take a back seat in not only his life, but the lives of millions around the nation, and around the globe.
Here is what Willie had to say about what he experienced during this dark, but ultimately triumphant time in our nation’s history:
Willie in the first game since the September 11th attacks, you were at Toronto, you came for defense in the 8th inning, was the atmosphere different at all in that first game back?
Not only baseball but everything was different, the atmosphere around the cities we went to, the atmosphere of everywhere we went was different, I remember when it happened, just like you said I had just gotten called up to the major leagues and I’m excited about being in the major leagues for one, and then this happens, and now we can’t play, so the thing that was most important is what was going on here in New York, not about baseball at that time.
It was a time where this country came together, and where everyone’s heart, especially in baseball, went out to all those who were lost, their families, and you can never relate to that, and for the most part as ballplayers, as this being our job, we worry about getting hits and making errors when someone has lost their father, or someone has lost their mother, and that is what is most important. When that happened this country came together.
The next game you played in was against the Yankees at Camden, do you recall if the Yankees had a somber feel to them, a kind of sobered persona following the attacks?
It’s tough for me to remember that atmosphere of that particular game, but if I can recall correctly, the rest of that season was like nobody really cared about that, what the country was going through was something way more important than what was going on on the baseball field; but at the same time that’s our job and that’s what were expected to do is to have success on the baseball field no matter what’s going on but, I think for the most part the most important thing was not baseball at that time, it was those people, those kids who now have to grow up without their parents, some kids died, it was a horrific, horrific thing this country went through, but I don’t remember the atmosphere of that series when we played the Yankees, but I’m sure nobody was focusing on baseball.
Do you remember anything from that day, on 9/11?
I remember I was on my way to the ballpark and everybody got these phone calls that the game had been canceled and I’m saying to myself, it is a beautiful day, it’s not raining, weathers not bad, I just got called up, you know I am ready to go to the ballpark, but once I got back to my apartment and turned on the television it was all over the news and it was pretty self-explanatory from there, but like I said baseball wasn’t important then.
Do you believe baseball was a healing process for the nation, especially here in New York?
I think that following year, that following baseball season was the start of the healing. You have fans in this game who absolutely live and die for this game, and love this game of baseball and yes that is a healing process for them, but I don’t think that healing process began until that following season because I think that entire city of New York, I think the entire baseball family, I think we were all in mourning that entire month of September. You really can’t put any emphasis on how important it was that this country came together, It was so huge for us as a country, but you still can’t bring those family members back, you still can’t bring those people back, but one thing you can do is let someone know ‘Hey I care for you, I’m sorry for what happened and if we can help you in any kind of way, we’re happy to do that’, and when I say that I speak for the entire baseball family, that is every team in the major leagues, I am sure they all feel the same way.
In such a detrimental blow to the morale of the United States of America, where our basic feelings of security and peace-of-mind, particularly in New York, were taken away; baseball was there to offer an escape from the constant grind of gloom and uncertainty. A game that much like our country, through good and bad, through prosperity and tragedy, has stood the test of time, not only surviving, but thriving.
Baseball became more than a game following 9/11, it was a way to begin the healing process for millions of viewers all over this great nation and around the world. This was most personified when Mets icon Mike Piazza lifted his now legendary home run over the left center-field wall to take a 3-2 lead over the Braves in the first home game since 9/11, Firefighters and Police Officers who hours earlier had been pulling their fallen brothers from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, managed to smile at the site of Piazza trotting around the diamond. This is what baseball is all about. This is why baseball is still America’s game.
Thoughts from Joe D. – Clayton, thanks for conducting a great interview on such an emotional and important subject as we are just days away from the ten year anniversary of that tragic day. Sometimes, I forget you are just 16-years old, but I’m often reminded of those qualities I saw in you as a writer, and why I’m glad you are a part of our MMO community. It’s not everyday that Mets vice president, Jay Horwitz, will smile and say, “nice job” to any blogger or writer, but he did just that with you. You made a great first impression in that press box, on the field, and in the media room at Citi Field, and made MMO shine with your professionalism and overflowing passion and enthusiasm. Great job.